Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, was the first single-language English dictionary ever published. It lists approximately 3000 words, defining each one with a simple and brief description. A number of the words listed in the 'Table Alphabeticall' were thought of as 'hard' - or unfamiliar to the general public - as they were derived from foreign or ancient languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Latin or French. The copy displayed on this website is the 3rd edition, published 1813.
A swelling lexicon
During the 16th century a vast number of new words flooded into the English language. This was largely thanks to rich developments in literature, science, medicine and the arts, and a renewed interest in classical languages. Cawdrey describes the peculiar way that well-to-do gentlemen were decorating their sentences with fancy phrases and complicated words from abroad. He says of these people: 'they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell or vnderstand what they say.' He writes of how 'far journied gentlemen' collect words on their travels and, coming home, 'pouder their talke with over-sea language.' Cawdrey wanted the English language to be better organised and felt that the 'Table Alphabeticall' would help the reader to understand challenging words.
Ladies, gentlewomen and other unskillfull persons
Cawdrey explained in the first edition of the 'Alphabeticall' that the book was intended to be useful for 'Ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.' Cawdrey hoped the 'Alphabeticall' would help to popularise knowledge itself, and that it would encourage more people to learn to read and write 'properly'. At this time, few girls would have gone to school, and only rich parents could have afforded private tutors. So there were many people who wanted to educate themselves in the basic rules of the English language.
Cawdrey's word definitions were uncomplicated. Unlike later dictionary makers, he did not refer to the great writers of the day, or to the origins of words. Instead the book's simplicity provided help for those who wanted either to have a better understanding of sermons and books, or to learn the 'correct' way to spell.